On the eve of the 1900s, the Gilded Age raged to an unsustainable zenith of extravagance. It all came crashing down during the Panic of 1893, a deep depression caused by a railroad bubble, shaky financing and bank failures. At this peak of decadence, the wealthy hosted elaborate dinner parties with a cornucopia of place settings: One pattern of the day offered 146 different pieces. In the 1920s, a policy introduced by then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover limited flatware patterns to just 55 pieces. But what of the mustard ladle, the silver lobster pick, the side-pronged cucumber server?
Considering how our previous decade saw the rise of luxury folderol — such as Sean John-brand chrome-plated alloy rims for $3,000 per wheel — it's easy to see how the Hoover policy might have been overlooked during the Glassware Revolution of 1999-2008. Riedel Glas Austria, the reigning king of crystal, lets you select from more than 250 wines, grapes, and regions — from Ajaccio (on the French island of Corsica) to Zweigelt (an Austrian red-grape variety) — to find the most suitable vessel for your vino. Its top-end Burgundy glass stands nearly 11 inches tall, holds 37 ounces (a bottle and a half), and runs about $80.
But why all the fuss? Yes, thin glass channels the juice to your taste buds more deftly than some commemorative Shrek the Third glass from a Happy Meal, but which are you more likely to use for daily drinking? The glass that can handle dishwashers and dogtail swipes, or the other, which threatens to shatter with a soprano's sustained high-C note? Beyond the laboratory-proven efficacy of certain shapes and methods, functionality, expense and aesthetics are important to consider. As a father of two, I have two kinds of glasses: One is a handsome, all-purpose stem that suits whites or casual reds and won't make me cry if it drops; the other, a generously-bowled goblet for voluptuous reds, comes out after butterfingered tots are safely filed away.
Thumbing through my memory banks, I find it much easier to recall great wines I've enjoyed from sub-par containers (Barbaresco from coffee mugs, bubbly from Mindy Cohen's junior prom shoe), but I cannot find a single entry in my wine journal that reads: "Wine was plonk, but the glasses were gorgeous." In short, unless you're toasting with the Holy Grail, the glass generally matters only as much as the wine. On the other hand, like candlelight, sumptuous vittles, or a come-hither date, beautiful stems enhance the wine experience; and although I'm not a stickler for matching sets or name brands, a restaurant's or hostess's taste in this matter never goes unnoticed.
For those looking to supplement cabinets stuffed with solid-state bargains from IKEA, Crate & Barrel or Marshalls, look to Dan Mirer and Minh Douglas Martin, who add art to the equation. Mirer's work is sophisticated, clean and mod, while Martin's Italianate ornamentation uses color and iridescence. I met the New York-based Mirer at the Visual Arts Center's last Craft + Design Show, and he ships to the 804, but his pal Martin is a Virginian by way of Lancaster County, Pa., California and Vietnam before setting up shop in Staunton.
I caught up with Martin recently for a quick Q&A.
Q: What do you think of all the stemware hullabaloo? A: My fiancée comes from a winemaking family, and she's convinced me of the merits of different shapes bringing out nuances, and deepened my appreciation for how glasses are used. Her father, the winemaker, showed me that a wider, flatter bowl lets reds breath easier, and tall, narrow flutes preserve bubbles longer. I've also been convinced of the value of decanting, and I've been commissioned to make ornamental decanters. People who appreciate great wines appreciate handmade things.
Q: What's the secret behind your stems? A: Taught by an Italian glassmaker in California, I'm impressed with machine-made glassware, but I use traditional tools and techniques: soda-lime glass, titanium, silver. Art glass, according to technical attributes, does the same thing as machined glass, but it adds an individual experience. Most producers were out-competed by imports; there's only a few of us left.